When last we left my “Niche Economics” ramblings, I was yammering about how games were getting smaller and more focused on a specific target audience. There will be a WoW-killer … when Blizzard decides they’ve made enough dump trucks of money off of it and says “that’s a wrap, folks” or makes the next big game everyone wants to play and culls their own customers from one to the other.

Related to my observations about the market are recent comments by Syncaine and Bildo about the state of Age of Conan’s system requirements. AoC requires higher-end systems to run on. Unlike WoW, you can’t just get by with a cheap computer, you’ll need high end graphics with lots of memory.

Is this a problem?

No and yes. If the niche of gamers AoC is shooting for are the high-end PC gamer group, then no, it’s not a problem. Bildo actually bought a new PC for it (work-related for him as well). Sounds like Syncaine’s system is already set up to support it. I think my system would probably run it fine. Gamers that tend to like higher-end games also tend to support their hobbies by upgrading their machines regularly. I know I spend way more than a sane person should to keep my system running smoothly including new video cards and whole new PCs if I need them. I haven’t worn shoes in three years, but the trade-off it worth it.

Just kidding about the shoes … flip flops are shoes, aren’t they? 🙂

The system requirements are a problem, however, if Funcom is trying to get an audience the size of the World of Warcraft’s. Video game development is software development: a company builds a program for a set of users and hopes the money made in supporting those users and providing them with the stuff they built will far exceed the expenses the company incurred in creating it.

A long time ago, I was in the market for a new PC. Pentium IIs were in their heyday and Pentium IIIs were a newfangled technology. As a new PC buyer, I went with the Pentium III. It had an AGP video card in a special slot and all these high-performance widgets to make it run really well. Around the same time, a game came out called Heavy Gear II. It was brilliant. It had an engaging storyline, some really neat single-player missions and an online component where you could meet and fight other players in various combat maps. It remains the best PvP experience I have had to date and some of the most fun game play I’ve seen. And yet no one has heard of Heavy Gear II. That’s because Activision created the game which required PCs with the AGP cards, not the Pentium IIs which were still in full swing. Activision inadvertently doomed the game to a small audience by requiring the more advanced systems to play it. The lesson: most computer gamers will not upgrade their systems to play a video game. There were many titles to choose from and if a game wouldn’t run on the PC the gamer had, they wouldn’t buy that game. Activision took it that Heavy Gear II was a failure and thus never bothered with Heavy Gear III.

Long story short (too late!): if AoC caters its game to high-end users and there are enough of them interested in playing the game, it will do fine. It won’t come close to denting WoW’s numbers but it will be a financial success and keep running for a good long time. Not every game should feel compelled to try to beat WoW’s numbers. Given the history of MMOs, someone will but I don’t think that’s going to be any time soon or with any titles I’ve yet to see.